“Because (Jamie) couldn’t use his hand, he found himself messing with lots of different things that he wouldn’t have probably had time for, or given himself time for, had it not happened. He built himself a studio. He got himself ProTools; he got himself different amps, different software, drums, etc. He went down the wormhole with rhythm. Having one hand afforded him that time, so we focused on that.”
(Prologue: This interview took place 4 years ago back in 2016 and was originally featured in print issue #44.)
Alison Mosshart is in Atlanta. It’s mid-May, and she’s happy because the weather is nice — it’s not oppressively hot, as it had been the day before. “It seems a little more civilized today,” she says, before asking whether it’s okay if she darts into a Starbucks for something to drink. “I do it about three times a day,” she says with a laugh. “It’s part of working 20 hours a day.”
Mosshart is on tour with The Kills, a band she formed with British guitarist Jamie Hince in 2000 after leaving the Florida punk band Discount. Mosshart and Hince initially tried writing songs together via long-distance post. They soon scrapped the idea, and Mosshart moved to London (she now lives in Nashville, Tennessee). The duo’s first proper full-length album, Keep on Your Mean Side, was released in 2003; another, No Wow, dropped in 2005, and a more electronic, beats-heavy LP, Midnight Boom, in 2008. Each was a natural evolution, exactly what one would expect from two musicians heavily invested in their craft and genuinely interested in growing both as people and artists.
After Hince’s left hand was injured when it was slammed in a car door, he required six surgeries and suffered a deep bone infection, forcing him to go through a painful recovery process — one that ultimately led to the new textures and sound on Ash & Ice, released June 3 on Domino. “Because (Jamie) couldn’t use his hand, he found himself messing with lots of different things that he wouldn’t have probably had time for, or given himself time for, had it not happened,” Mosshart says. “He built himself a studio. He got himself ProTools; he got himself different amps, different software, drums, etc. He went down the wormhole with rhythm. Having one hand afforded him that time, so we focused on that.” Mosshart says it was also a natural step forward, as was choosing a different setting for recording. The band’s previous albums were recorded at Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan. For Ash & Ice, the band chose to record in a rented house in Los Angeles and also in New York at Electric Lady Studios.
“We wanted to record somewhere that was the polar opposite of what we had done in the past, which was lock ourselves away in a studio in the middle of nowhere,” Mosshart says. “It was a really different experience; it was a much more open experience, and I think you can hear that. I know I can hear it.” The songs on Ash & Ice are individually good; taken as a whole, they really speak to where things are right now in indie music. The Kills’ music doesn’t have just one sound or influence; the band’s songs pulse with an energy that looks forward as well as back. It definitely sounds like a record from The Kills, but it’s something completely new, too.
“Hard Habit to Break” features distorted guitars and dance-club drumbeats but also has a secondary crisp, clear guitar line, while “Bitter Fruit” is a devil-swank, surf-rock-inspired tune that recalls a Las Vegas Strip that exists only in the legacy of our collective imagination. The “Psycho”-esque intro to “Siberian Nights” fits well with the song’s lyrics, which ask, “Am I too close for comfort?”
“Let it Drop” hints at the 1980s without being a tribute; the gospel-blues-country-influenced “Hum For Your Buzz” is, in the words of Mosshart, “a really classic song that should have already been written; it feels like that to me, so I’m really proud of it and whatever I tapped into. I don’t know how I did it.”
Ash & Ice’s cohesiveness is all Hince, who is much more plan-oriented than Mosshart, who says she prefers the unharnessed spontaneity of creating rather than the methodical process of editing.
“If I did a record by myself, God knows what it would be like,” she says. “There would be 50 songs on it, and it’d all be kind of crazy. And Jamie is this master of… seeing something as a whole before diving into all the bits and pieces. He really needs to feel like he knows what he’s shooting for before he starts. If a song isn’t going toward that vision, it immediately gets kicked out, whereas I never see anything like that… I cherish the magic stuff that happens automatically, the stuff that isn’t planned, those beautiful moments. And there’s a lot of shit that happens as well… but every once in awhile, something beautiful happens. I’m so proud of those moments because I can’t really control them; they sort of just control me.”
Though it has been five years since the band’s last album (Blood Pressures, released in 2011, also on Domino), The Kills haven’t been inactive, despite Mosshart’s stint with Jack White in The Dead Weather, a supergroup also featuring Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Dean Fertita 26 and The Raconteurs’ “Little Jack” Lawrence. The Kills toured for three years to promote Blood Pressures and were in the studio in 2014 working on songs for Ash & Ice. At the same time, Mosshart displayed her paintings as part of the ArtNowNY 2014 exhibition “Push,” and worked on a clothing collaboration with France’s Surface to Air.
“All of these things sort of intersect and happen at the same time whether people realize it or not,” Mosshart says. “Maybe there was a ‘public’ break because we weren’t releasing records during that time, but we sure were working. You have to play a lot longer, go to a lot more places, go to those places two or three times and it’s starting to be a three-year touring cycle. It happens to be my favorite part of being on a band, being on stage, so I can’t complain about it. But, I can say that it does put some distance between records, a little bit more than I would want.”
Playing the same songs for three years might become tedious for some musicians. Motorhead’s Lemmy once told a reporter that he sang “Eight of Spades” for two solid years because he got so sick of performing the song. But for Mosshart, it was a chance to observe the effect that a given room and crowd could have on the band’s music. With Ash & Ice, The Kills have added a bassist and live drummer to their lineup, and the songs have started to change even more. “I feel like the songs change every time we play them,” she says. “You can convince yourself they’re about something completely different from when you wrote them. That’s how it stays interesting, by allowing that to happen.”
Setting plays a role, too. As live music has evolved, festivals have become a large part of most bands’ tour schedules. The format is completely different from more intimate shows in smaller venues with controlled settings. A few weeks prior to this interview, Mosshart says The Kills were on stage at Coachella. While audiences were taking Instagram selfies, tagging friends and reveling in their thousand-dollar desert musical experience, Mosshart and Hince were battling 30-mile-an-hour winds, dust storms and blistering sun.
“It’s like playing the rock ’n’ roll version of ‘Desert Storm’; it’s totally crazy,” she says. “You’re just trying to survive the whole time, and that in itself makes a show really interesting, beautiful and strange and unlike anything, you’d see at other venues. There were guys hanging from wires in body harnesses above our heads, securing speakers that were about to come crashing down. It’s something else. It’s not less … or more … I have time for that, too. By the second weekend, I was so fucking ready to kick the desert’s ass.”
Words: Sara Farr